Max Liebermann at the The Hague’s Gemeente Museum

Ask Dutch people what they think of Max Liebermann’s work and they’ll give you a blank stare. The German artist spent most summers painting in Holland? The Dutch hardly know him. Fortunately, this will change with the exhibition Max Liebermann: Impressions of Summer.

Max Liebermann came from a wealthy Berlin family. He went to university, but broke off his studies to become an artist. He volunteered as medic in the Franco-Pruissian war and a year later, left for France.

He spent time in Paris and at Barbizon. The French Impressionists inspired him. Like them, he worked en plein air. In Barbizon, Liebermann lived near Millet’s house, but it is unclear if Millet ever talked to him.

Works by Dutch artists like van Gogh and Mauve, show Liebermann was not the only one inspired by Millet. In 1876, Liebermann visited the Netherlands for the first time. This exhibition shows some of his studies of Frans Hals’ paintings.

At the time, Holland was rather backward and hardly industrialized. As such, it was a source of inspiration to artists. Among the early works by Liebermann is a wonderful Dutch interior.

Nearby hangs a large painting showing poor Amsterdam women hard at work. They sort, clean, cut up vegetables for hours on end, earning a pittance. Liebermann captures the drudgery perfectly.

Nearby hangs a work showing Amsterdam women sorting coffee beans. Jozef Israels painted it. At an exhibition, Israels poked Liebermann in the back. Was Liebermann the guy who had painted those Parisian pensioners?

This odd introduction started off an important friendship. From then on, until the First World War prevented the Liebermanns from travelling to Holland, Max spent summers painting along the Dutch coast. During these trips, Liebermann always spent time with Israels.

Under the influence of the The Hague School and French Impressionists, Liebermann’s style changed. The paintings became more impressionistic; colours brighter and sunnier. Subject matter includes beach activities, but also people sitting in a Leiden park, or someone hunting in the dunes near Noordwijk.

After the summer holidays, Liebermann returned to Berlin. From 1884 onward, he and his family lived in a house near the Brandenburg Tor. The exhibition includes a charming painting of his studio.

In Berlin, Liebermann became a fashionable portrait painter. His importance and influence increased. He became a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts, later its president. He was a founding-member of Berlin’s avant-garde Secession.

After 1910, once the family’s villa near the Wannsee was finished, Liebermann started painting its garden and park. Some of these paintings resemble works by Monet, of his Givenchy home and garden.

Liebermann’s success, influence and importance seem boundless – till 1933. The Nazis grab power. Liebermann resigns over imposed discriminatory measures and retreats to his beloved Wannsee villa.

There he dies in 1937. His daughter and her family escape to America but his widow was unable to leave. The Nazis forced her to sell the Wannsee villa – for a pittance. She died after a bungled suicide-attempt, on hearing she was to be deported, in 1943.

By then, Liebermann’s collection of French art had been confiscated. His own art ended up in Nazi ‘collections’ as well. In 2011, the Israel Museum returned a painting to Liebermann’s heirs. He had loaned it to a museum which was looted by Nazis.

In 2012, one of his works was recovered from the Nazi hoard found in Munich. This work is one of two versions Liebermann painted of a horseman riding along Scheveningen beach. Visitors can admire the other version in the exhibition.

Liebermann’s paintings capture a sunny idyllic Holland. His best known painting of Amsterdam orphans shows girls relaxing on a sunny day. Even the artist’s final landscapes are of summer gardens, with the Wannsee occasionally shimmering through trees.    Kate Den    6th April 2018


The Gemeente Museum’s Max Liebermann, Impressions of Summer continues until  24th June.

The reproduction is of De Papegaaienman, (The Parrot Man) of 1902, Museum Folkwang, Essen. With thanks to them and the Gemeente Museum for permission to use it here.